I received the call from the Irish Writers Centre Director, Valerie Bistany, telling me the fantastic news that I’d been selected for the 2017 Residency at St Mark’s Cultural Centre in Florence as I was driving to the airport last June to spend a few days with my mother in Manchester. She had been admitted to hospital with a kidney complaint and I was glad to be able to keep her company while she was there. I’d pulled in to take the call and had to wait a few moments to let it sink in before getting on the road again.
I was over the moon. This was my first residency, and I knew enough of the city of Florence to be delighted to spend a few days there. I was nearing the end of writing my second collection, Landfall, which travels between Ireland, where I have lived for many years; Sicily, where I’d recently spent two periods of eight months and the UK, where I was born and brought up. This was the perfect opportunity to see how the poems felt back under an Italian sky again, and to maybe add a poem or two to a book nearing, or so I’d hoped, the final draft. Responses to the beauty of the city, the crowds, the people I’d meet were already half-forming in my brain.
I spent the summer bouncing back and forth over the Irish Sea visiting my mother in hospital, while work kept me in Ireland during the week. She worsened, rallied, worsened, rallied. In early September I flew over, anxious to manage a visit before the Residency. She was sat up in a chair by the bed, delighted to see me and she waved a cheerful goodbye after a day spent in chat and pampering. A few days later came another phone call: she’d taken a rapid turn for the worse, I should fly over immediately. She died an hour after the call with my brother and sister and their families around her. But not me.
My mind was far from residencies and poetry, but even in grief you have to be somewhere. A few days after the funeral I made my way from the station over the Santa Trinita bridge with the jumbled backs of medieval shops on the Ponte Vecchio to my left, past the deli where I’d get my bread, milk and olives, to the massive double doors of the Palazzo which houses St Mark’s. I was careful to ring the doorbell marked Chaplin “as in Charlie” as the Artistic Director of the Cultural Association, Mundy E. Walsh, had instructed, and not the one marked “Chaplain” as in prelate. I heard an answering echo of footfall on stone and Mundy introduced herself. We entered the black and white tiled vestibule, where a jewel-bright church could be seen through open doors, and mounted stairs bordered by a huge stone balustrade worthy of a Medici. Each landing held several doors, with small brass name plaques and it was comforting to know that this was a place where a community lived and worked. The apartment was all I could want: peaceful and comfortable, with French windows leading to a good-sized balcony overlooking a laneway to Santo Spirito. All I really wanted to do was sleep.
The next day I made my way through the labyrinth of corridors and ante-rooms with bowls of flowers. Someone somewhere was playing piano, and elsewhere a voice was running through opera scales. With help I found the cluttered office of Mundy Walsh, a woman whose vision brings the Cultural Centre to life. This responsibility seems to sit easily on her and we had a great conversation about her home town of Kilkenny, Glengarriff, where I live and where she went on holiday as a child, and Florence: how to avoid the crowds, where to get essentials, and, most importantly, where to get the best gelato. (I recommend the fig flavour.)
There were highlights. My reading on the Tuesday in the room with the beautiful ceiling and the Q and A with American Poet Jalína Mhyana, which she had researched so well beforehand, reading my book Thimblerig and meeting me the day before to prepare. At the reading a chance remark from me about “a hero of mine” allowed me to make a connection with Eleanor Makepeace, the wonderful artist and poet, who had illustrated, and contributed to, a book of poems in tribute to the modernist poet Basil Bunting whom she’d known well and on whom I’d written an academic paper, Hatmaker, a few years back. How I wish I could have spent more time with her! She left me prints of some of her illustrations of the book for Bunting she had collaborated on. They brim with strong, interlacing images from Briggflatts and drawings of Bunting himself. I treasure them. The next night Jalína invited me to an open mic in a converted theatre where I was able to hear the work of some of the Florence Writers Group and others. Later in the week I gave an international workshop to poets born in Singapore, England, Turkey and the United States and I found I was able to float above my grief for those two hours, in my collaborations with the participants. I loved the new rhythms which their differing cultures brought to the well-worn oval table.
Mostly I was a somnambulist, avoiding the crowds of tourists, walking the streets south of the Arno, half in and half out of this world. For my usual alert self this can be the space where poetry happens but, so soon after my mother’s death, all my imaginings were of her. She was at my shoulder and I wanted to keep her there. There were memories too, family holidays in Florence with three generations of women: my mother, my sister and my daughter. I relived as much as I could. Every night she was with me in my dreams. The solitude which I had expected would give me chance to work on my collection, gave me the space to learn the memories of my mother, to wire them into me.
Those wonderful prints from Eleanor Makepeace are my souvenirs of that time. My abiding memory of the Residency was not the beautiful city of Florence but of the small community in and around St Mark’s Florence and their many kindnesses, the sun on my back as I walked, and the space I had to start grieving in my own way. As I continue the grieving process, the more valuable that space seems. My sincere thanks to the Irish Writers Centre and St Mark’s Florence for giving me that opportunity.